Since completion of the waterfront walkway, it has become my conduit of choice for getting from Sinatra Park to the PATH trains. Whether it’s raining and foggy or gloriously sunny and warm, the walkway offers a wonderful avenue for traversing Hoboken. Thanks to all who made it possible- above all, the activists of the 1980’s and 1990’s who fought the good battle on behalf of the townsfolk.
But one thing is conspicuously absent on the walkway- and that is some monument or plaque acknowledging its former maritime use and the longshoremen who worked for much of our city’s history. My father was one of those people, one of the many immigrants from Eastern Europe who made Hoboken their home before moving on to other – and in their minds, more congenial- places. He worked for Holland-American, a shipping line whose very name echoes Hoboken’s early history as a home of Dutch and German people. The waterfront was a rough place in his day, a place of corrupt unions and shippers (and politicians who got their cut from both); of ethic groups pitted against each other, with the most recently arrived faction (Italian, Slav, Jew) the recipient of harsh handling from the faction (German, Irish) preceding them; of long and ent strikes; of financial and physical hardship; of a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil modus vivendi. In my childhood, my father regaled my brother and me with many bitter, and some funny stories of the docks. And of course Marlon Brando made it all legendary in “On the Waterfront,” a video of which should be as common as dishwashers and air conditioning in the luxury apartment buildings now dotting the walkway from 1st to 14th Streets.
I wonder what my father and his buddies would think of the waterfront now, were they alive to see it. As I walk to the PATH some mornings, I hear the echoes of accented English-the shouts, the laughter, the camaraderie of the men- and conjure a powerful image of cargo and passenger ships. Those echoes from the past cry out for some larger -than-life monument, perhaps anchored in the Hudson, to honor the people who worked on the docks. Or at least a plaque inscribed with some lines of poetry. Something to inform the dwellers of luxury apartments that men once strained under physical and psychological burdens in a place of pleasure now.
And while we’re at it, what about plaques on building that once housed garment factories and machine shops?
What matters is that people once sweated where we now live and play, and somehow that fact should be publicly acknowledged.